Obama’s troops in Central Africa to fight LRA; will they deliver?

Many Ugandans, through various social networks, have expressed skepticism over the 100 combat troops the US deployed to Uganda to help stamp out the rebels of Lord’s Resistance Army currently operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and parts of western South Sudan.

They think what they are actually here to do is secure for their country Uganda’s newly found oil.

a photo i took on Wednesday morning at Entebbe International Airport.

The mistrust and suspicion of American military interventions is well understood considering its record world over. However, I found many who are opposed to this deployment lacking much knowledge on what havoc the LRA have inflicted on the peoples of the three countries whom governments have largely ignored. And also many don’t look at what alternatives are there to stop these brutal massacres Continue reading “Obama’s troops in Central Africa to fight LRA; will they deliver?”

Talking Africa Nobel Peace Prize winners with Al Jazeera

Last week, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gobwee won the the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Tawakkul Karman from Yemen for their work of bringing peace in non-violent ways in their countries. I met Leymah last year at the Man Up Campaign conference alongside the World Cup in South Africa. I have interviewed President Sirleaf twice. I thought it was very significant for African women to be recognised in the area of peace and security. Most often the image of African women is that of a victim of war and not a participant in bringing about peace.

Here is what I shared with Al Jazeera Newshour the day the winners were announced on Friday 7 October.

This week at the press briefing in Kigali, I asked President Paul Kagame what this prize meant for Africa.

I am only happy for the women of Africa. We need to go beyond this being a symbol for women. Women need attention not just in Africa but in the rest of the world. When I travel and read i see marginalisation of women. We appreciate the quest to empower women and have them as an integral part of our society on equal terms. But as we get help here in Africa, i feel we may need to take this help to some of these countries. For instance you go to discuss business in these countries and all their boards have about 20 men and one or two women. They too need help. This Prize is a reminder that we should work beyond the prize that was given for us to meet expectations of women of Africa. We need more women presidents!

In the interview I mentioned the status of women in South Sudan and I intend to write a separate post soon from my recent trip to Juba and interactions with women leaders in that country.

 

A chat with Jannette Kagame ; Rwanda’s struggle with Human Rights groups and why she stays out of politics

This week I am in Kigali, Rwanda where I am taking part in a meeting with Echenberg human rights fellows, a program coordinated by McGill University to bring together youth from around the world to discuss various human rights issues.

On the list of people to meet was Rwanda’s First Lady Jeannette Kagame whom the group met yesterday October 10. Shortly before I left Kampala on Sunday President Museveni had given a medal to his wife Janet Museveni who is a minister and member of parliament, for her part in the fight to ‘liberate’ us. This  was given out as Uganda celebrated 49 years of independence. It was yet another controversial medal taken care of by the controversial medals budget from State House.

Going into the meeting with Rwanda’s  First Lady I wondered how I would put my question about family rule. Then I asked on twitter what people would ask Mrs Kagame. @Afric01 replied and I put his question first.

Below are the highlights of our meeting Continue reading “A chat with Jannette Kagame ; Rwanda’s struggle with Human Rights groups and why she stays out of politics”

Breaking a 33 year jinx; Ugandans wait to make a come back in Africa football

Today, Kampala is very colourful. Lately it’s only this colourful on events like these. It’s two days before Uganda ‘celebrates’ it’s 49 years after independence but those years seem to mean nothing much this friday as Uganda plays Kenya tomorrow October 8. This game means so much for Ugandans. It has been 33 years we have have waited to make a come back to the African Nations Cup.

The world and many in Uganda may be used to seeing the name of late President Iddi Amin next to words like monster, killer or beast but for many Ugandans he was a great man. His reasonable actions in other fields might be overshadowed by his rogue side but Ugandans know it was a year before he was ousted that Uganda last competed in the continental tornament where it only lost to Ghana on the final.  And his leadership and backing of sports had something to do with that historic appearance.

The past year has been tough for us, the economic crisis and our government that loves to spend have not helped. We bought ourselves fighter jets at millions of dollars, our currency can’t stop weakening against others and our inflation stands at 28.3 % this month. We have had strikes by different professions, teachers, taxi drivers e.t.c.  Many are struggling to put a meal on the table and keep their children in school or even enjoy a beer (our president advised us to drink milk instead.)

The Uganda Cranes, our national team seems to be the only thing holding us together, the little light that we are seeking in our darkness. Uganda has has 10 points and Kenya is at 7. Uganda must get win to avoid any calculations based on the other group game between Angola (9 point) and Guinea Bissau.

My Cranes jersey!

Uganda last lost to Kenya at home in 1991 so the Kenyans have their own 10 year jinx they will be looking to break. But the 33 year jinx means much more. Football has remained the only place for Ugandans to show their patriotism and love for their country.  According to tweets i have read many would wish not even see the face of their politicians at this game. The ordinary people feel the staduim is the only place they can unite and defeat someone. It’s the hopelessness that has engulfed us in the midst of failing systems whether education or health care, unwanted public expenditure and unending promotions of the corrupt and the wicked of the regime.

In one of the qualifying games, the now Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, whose name is painted all over different corruption scandals was the chief guest. He dared to flash his party sign and his aides had to shield him from flying water bottles from the Cranes fans. A few days ago he visited the Cranes camp and so did the first son Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba. Both donates some thousands of dollars. First the money is largely seen as our own tax payers money and then if this government genuinely invested in sports (am dreaming ) they wouldn’t need to come out at last minute to pledge. Truth is national sport survives because of few good hearts and the very supportive fans.

Football and the Cranes games in particular are almost the only remaining things that Ugandans can put their hearts to and spend their money on. It’s the day you see Uganda flags in numbers you wont find at any event not even the 49th Independence anniversary.  Ugandan leaders have largely been so meaningless to ordinary people that seeing corrupt leaders – much as they have a right to be there- come to claim they are behind the country’s pride makes many mad.

The Nelson Mandela National Stadium is simply the only place we come to forget -for just day- about you looters of our country! Ugandans come to forget what is happening to Uganda. And it’s the only place you see genuine nationalism therefore breaking the 33 year jinx is about history, pride and Namboole is the place to be ourselves!

A speech that Ugandans long for

It’s really emotional to read through this. To read the farewell speech of outgoing Zambian President Rupiah Banda who has conceded defeat in this week’s election to opposition leader Michael Sata. There’s not much you can add to it. With all his weakeness and policy flaws, Banda has given Zambians what many old men on the continent have denied us- a respectful power transition and political maturity.

I say this is the speech that many Ugandans would love to see some day-hopefully soon.  I have seen great quotes from Banda that resonate to many Ugandans and others on the continent. Zambia is another show for Africa that we live above the politics of division, election violence and clinging to power against all odds.

“Zambia must not go backwards, we must all face the future and go forward as one nation. Not to do so would dishonour our history.

“My generation… the generation of the independence struggle– must now give way to new ideas; ideas for the 21st century.”

“Did we become grey and lacking in ideas? Did we lose momentum? Our duty now is to go away and reflect on any mistakes we may have made and learn from them. If we do not, we do not deserve to contest power again.”

“But my greatest thanks must go to the Zambian people. We may be a small country on the middle of Africa but we are a great nation. Serving you has been a pleasure and an honour. I wish i could have done more, i wish i had more time to give.”

“I have no ill feeling in my heart, there is no malice in my words. I wish him well in his years as president. I pray his policies will bear fruit.” — Rupiah Banda.

 

It takes courage, respect and love to say these words and Uganda is waiting, it has waited since 1962 when we got independence. Below is the full speech Continue reading “A speech that Ugandans long for”

Ethnic politics and maternal mortality

For the last week i was on a break in Addis Ababa visiting friends but i kept an eye on news in Uganda.  Two  things struck me most.

It has become the regular news about pregnant women dying in labour due to our crumbling health care system. No matter how many cases you hear from relatives to friends to work colleagues, it still aches. First you see statistics that tell you 16 pregnant women die daily and when you go beyond the stats you read the horror that families go through. In July, my boda boda (motorcycle) rider lost his wife in childbirth, then came a friend of a friend. So last week we lost another woman.  Cecilia Nambozo, a teacher at Busamaga Primary School in Mbale, eastern Uganda. She was left to die because she couldn’t raise UGX 300,000 (USD120). That amount is probably what Cecilia was being paid in 3 months. In a country where health workers are not paid well and the working environment that can easily drive one insane, the negligence has increased as compassion has slowly slipped away. So i don’t see the death of Cecilia as just neglect at the hospital but the whole social injustice system that makes it impossible for even a teacher to access proper health care. In May the Centre for Health Human Rights and Development (CEHURD), a Ugandan NGO, and the families of two mothers who died in government hospitals in 2009 went to the Constitutional Court alleging the women’s deaths were caused as a direct result of Uganda’s failing healthcare system. We are waiting to see the outcome of this case as it will have implications and how to hold government accountable in health service delivery. Although even a positive court pronouncement won’t make a huge difference, i think it would be a good start. Maternal mortality is not just a health issue, it’s a social justice issue.

After Cecilia’s case I received an email  from a friend i went to high school with which made me more worried about Uganda. Worried because i feel like with increased economic hardships people are becoming more frustrated and putting their anger on imagined enemies. My friend’s message was in response to an article i wrote on tribalism in the wake of 2009 Buganda riots. I had written on reports of attacks on people because of their ethnicity. I didn’t expect this to end with the riots but these reports make wonder what Uganda might go through given the current projections of political instability in future according to many reports. After seeing over 1000 people killed in Kenya in ethnic clashes in the post election violence, we can’t simply ignore the role of tribe in politics and how one group becomes a target. This is what my friend wrote to me about.

Rosebell,
Imagine today  I flagged down a taxi on Kampala road, the driver stopped, took a closer look at me and as I prepared to board he angrily shouted at his conductor to shut the door because tetwala banyankole (he doesn’t take Banyankole in his public passenger vehicle)… I simply couldn’t believe it and was overwhelmed by emotion that my eyes started tearing! I don’t want to imagine what would happen to people like us if all hell broke loose..

Since the year began it’s been tough with the  economy on the rocks, inflation rising and discontent brewing. And while many would fault government, to some government is simply a certain ethnicity and therefore  they will blame everything happening to that ethnic group. one thing is for sure, power in this country is increasingly in the hands a few people who belong to one ethnic group but blaming the politics of ethnicity and the guilt by association will not give us a secure future. My friend’s email left me pondering how we can go away  from this course. We have enough lessons from our own history and that of  neighbouring countries on what ethnic politics can do a society.

Who listens to listener? Health workers and war trauma in DRC

Apart from generating media hype, I doubt many policy makers in the West are genuinely interested in the DRC. I happened to be listening to an interview with Gerald Prunier recently and his conclusion was not that different: our perspective of the DRC conflict are clouded by racism. No one wants to address the politics. Instead, the image of total chaos is encouraged. The tragic consequence is that many more continue to die and suffer.

I support efforts by Panzi hospital, but like all interventions that are emergency we can’t help wonder, is the humanitarian focus enough to solve the conflict? I guess, one may say, the two are not mutually exclusive. Besides, who am I to be asking such a question? Except, I was in those same places not so long ago.

It’s taken me some days to come to write about my time at Panzi but this passionate email I received from a friend who is both Rwandan and Congolese gave the needed push. It followed a chat on my recent trip to Bukavu and Panzi in particular where I spent a week with a team of Psychologists and a Psychiatrist assessing war trauma among health workers.

What my friend raised above in the email were the same questions and feelings I found with the health workers I found at Panzi. Many wondered what difference they were bringing. They treat the sick and try to revive devastated lives of women who are sexually violated. Women violated in ways that you won’t easily get an explanation of why this goes on.

My friend’s concern of providing humanitarian aid and not solving the root cause of conflicts in Eastern DRC had many health workers feel helpless. They constantly asked questions of how can we ever address war trauma when we receive same cases everyday . Many had a hard time seeing how they can reduce trauma if the wars are still going.

Panzi receives at least 10 raped women a day. These women come from the Kivu provinces, Katanga other neighbouring provinces. Most times they arrive after many days or months after the violation.

One of the initial ways to manage trauma, i am told,  is avoidance but in DRC, it’s difficult for a health worker to avoid the horrors of rape. They shoulder the burden of having to listen. If you have experienced war trauma or dealt with communities out of war, one of the most challenging but necessary things is having to listen to the terrible stories. Some people say it’s easier to just forget but they really never forget. For health workers they have to listen in order to heal others but who listens to them? these accumulated images of killing and raping have a very big impact on the health and life of healthworkers..

One surgeon told of how sometimes she doesn’t know where to begin. She said many women come with pieces of wood that have been pushed in their vagina and beyond and she’s supposed to figure out where to start with the surgery. Such is the work of health worker in DRC. Dr. Dennis Mukwege the founder of Panzi told me the rape in Congo is not just a sexual matter.

“They are using all sorts of things to destroy the society. This is beyond a sexual matter, it’s a way to destroy us.”

Dr. Mukwege also told me it’s a situation that one can easily give up on due to the magnitude yet they have stayed and played their part. The political leaders and international community haven’t really played their part much.

“I have spent ten years repairing fistula everyday and sometimes you lose hope. I stay because it’s important for Africa that we have our destiny in our own hands. We are good enough to make it.”

Listening the different health workers and social workers I felt these are the people Naomi Shihab Nye talks about.

“How do they maintain any shred of dignity and balance? You know those are the courageous people to me. All the simple people of the earth who don’t lose their sanity in the face of constant dis-ease in the world they live in.”

 

Women during a prayer at Panzi. The hospital hosts prayers for all patients every morning.

As one person on twitter said when I put up the last post, Panzi workers are some of the world’s most hardworking health workers. Many have lived through war and everyday their work revolves around tending to war affected.  The presence of the UN in Congo has not helped so much is getting the DRC government to take charge. Some of the rapes have gone in close proximity to the UN.  What has the UN done to strengthen the military capacity of the Congo to govern itself? The more stories I heard from Congolese about the UN the more I realized that someone else won’t save the Congo. They will continue to address humanitarian issues because they are the easiest to tackle.

For the health workers that try on daily basis  to piece together shattered lives in Eastern Congo , the worry is not just about if the women can recover but when will they see an end to the violence.

 

Twitter revolt in Uganda?

Today we woke up to the words of the Uganda Security Minister Wilson Muruli Mukasa saying the opposition is using social media to pyschologically prepare youth for armed insurgency. It couldn’t have been better timing looking at what’s coming out of UK government after the riots. Such claims also came out as the opposition was launching new round of walk to work protests.

The first day on Wednesday August 10, the police disperse peaceful opposition supporters in Masaka led by the FDC leader Kizza Besigye. Mukasa’s allegations of a twitter revolt is based on these renewed efforts by opposition to stage protests despite government crackdown. This claim was discussed well among Ugandan tweeps who mostly wondered if the minister really knows how twitter works. Top tweets in Uganda are not even from politicians but rather individual youths looking for forum to discuss issues affecting their country and their lives.

No doubt the Uganda opposition uses social media much better than the government. We have seen top opposition leaders updating their facebook and twitter accounts as they are in running battles with the police. But government’s reaction to social media has been slow ad hence they see the opposition having some good advantage in the race to put out information. I remember in April when the protests were on high, the presidential press secretary told the Guardian that they were not bothered about the impact of social media because “farmers in Uganda don’t know what it is.” Today we see the government waking up to accept the power of social media-in a disguised way- on the youth in the country. Social media use in Uganda has been steadily increasing since end of last year.

In June I was part of an amazing program by the US Mission in Geneva – a Internet Freedom Fellowship. As part of the program I visited the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. It’s great to see them follow some issues I highlighted last week. The story of Ester Abeja, a woman from Lira who experience wartime sexual violence and she is in need of a surgery to remove her uterus. The OHCHR highlighted her case here.  Social media is important in putting out stories like that of Abeja, from Lira to Geneva which would otherwise not have been captured by the traditional media.

It’s in the freedom to use the internet that we have seen a certain advance in human rights violations reporting. Therefore moves from people like Mukasa’s and efforts by Cameron in UK shdn’t be just brushed aside. Governments want to use situations like riots to muzzle internet freedom.

They want to attack the means of expression but not the root cause of these riots. We will have to watch in coming days what the government in Uganda will do. Today we see protesters being called terrorists and tomorrow we could see social media users being charged with terrorism for merely expressing themselves.

 

Right to Education? I stay out of school for my family.

Last year the Observer reported that in some areas in Uganda the school dropout rate for girls is about 84 percent. Reports have shown that the national primary school dropout rates for girls in Uganda is at 20% annually and about four times more in some districts in the northern and eastern parts of the country (mostly affected by the 23 year war.)

In Lira at one of the OutPatient rooms I watched as girls as young as 10 spent a whole day in queues carrying their young siblings as their either pregnant or sick mothers waited in line. It was a school day and all these girls had missed school. Often when a woman has many children, it’s the girl child who stays back to literally raise her siblings at the expense of her education. Also I met girls about 15 years with children or pregnant at this health center. Catherine Abor, one peace activist told me when i asked why this is going  “the men here have no mercy for these women. They say the war reduced their clans and therefore women must produce as many as possible. This means many don’t support girls to go beyond primary school.” May be its not a mercy thing. But these attitudes keep the girls out of school and so does the lack of coherent policies to back the universal primary education that was introduced more than 10 years ago. The human development issues this country faces cannot be overcome if we can’t keep the girl child in school.

Here are the girls I met.

Last year UNESCO ranked Uganda as country with highest school dropout rate in East Africa. Girls dropout most due to teenage pregnancy and marriage.
A follow-up of every 100 pupils who joined Primary One in 1999, showed that only 25 children in Uganda reached Primary Seven in 2006. Kenya had 84% reaching Primary Seven. Tanzania stood at 81% and Rwanda at 74%--UNESCO.
Most girls that drop out of school are likely to be married off before they are 18 and this means they will have more children and the cycle of poverty never breaks.
Other reports have shown costs of schooling and family responsibilities drive thousands of Ugandan children out of school.

You are my child I shouldn’t be telling you this

This week I was in Lira in northern Uganda at a medical camp for women with reproductive health complications most of them sustained during the 23 year LRA war. Organisers had no idea 400 women would turn just on the the first day.

I was taking interviews from these women most of whom it was the first time they were going to see a gynecologist since the various sexual violations happened. It is always a tough position to be in. Women as old as 60 years narrating how they were raped, how no one wants to hear their story, how the community calls them all sorts of names it is beyond what i can describe.

One of the very first interviews, I was speaking to Akello (not real name) a woman who was abducted together with her co-wife. They reached the bush and were forcibly ‘married’ to one man. They both endured years of sexual violations including gang rapes. They returned 6 years ago, they didn’t know they both had HIV. Akello tells me they passed it on to their husband they had left behind and he died 3 years ago. She hasn’t really dealt with her own trauma and she blames herself for ‘killing’ her husband.

One of the women at the medical camp in Ogur Lira.

Just like in all interviews, we always take time out when the woman needs sometime pull herself together. At the end she calls me back and says “You are my child, I shouldn’t be telling you this.” I had no words to add, I just sat down for some minutes. I felt she wanted to spare me from listening, listening to horrors that many others preferred untold. We had been through it all, her life in the bush, her life after and how she hardly owns anything. How she struggles to feed and educate her 2 grand children. Of the 8 children she had, only one survived. It’s tougher to listen to a woman your mother’s or grandmother’s age talk about how she was raped. You can’t easily cry because you don’t want to derail her further. You can’t help see your mother in the faces of all these women left with almost nothing of their dignity. Yet they tell you these stories that mothers can never tell their children because they think you can help in a way.

I met Ester Abeja, she insisted that I put her face out. She was afraid that covering her face was more like what the community and government have done-ignore their plight. Like most of the women that turned up for the screening, she had complications. She is suffering from what doctors called uterine prolapse (the descent of the uterus into the vagina or beyond). In her case her uterus is hanging out. She was abducted and violated by the LRA rebels for many years.  Ester needs a surgery that would cost about 200 USD. She has had this condition for years and she is raising 5 children whom the husband abandoned. Before I spoke to her she was visibly traumatised and she told me many times she has thought of killing her husband who now has two other wives. We talked about it and she agrees that wouldn’t solve her problems, we have to concentrate on getting her the operation to remove her uterus.

Most of the women i spoke to had been abandoned by their families once they came back from the LRA. They face a high level of stigma. For those who had children with the rebels and came back with them it’s even much more difficult. Their children are called ‘Kony’s children.’

Ester Abeja.

Ester had one child with one of the rebels, she’s now about 6 years. “Do they think I wanted to be raped by these rebels? Do they think i wanted to kill my own child?” Ester wonders. She tells me another chilling story of how rebels forced her to kill her one year old baby gal by smashing her skull on a tree. Another young son was captured with her and she has no idea if he’s still alive.  She tells me she rarely sleeps and you can see it in her eyes.

I left Ester in Ogur. I am hopeful that Isis-WICCE, the organisation i worked with on this medical camp, can get money to get Ester and others the much needed surgery. There’s such lack of attention for survivors of sexual violence who are mostly women all over the LRA affected areas. And if she gets the surgery she will need support and most of these women need a lot of economic empowerment but few reach government programs.

One doctor from Lira told me, “When war ends, there’s a silent war that has to be fought.”

He said the challenge so far has been that “politicians think they will just put structures which they can use to say this is what i did during my time and ignore peoples needs.” And i don’t expect my government to get Ester the much needed help because even the health center we were at didn’t have any drugs to give to those with the simplest of the reproductive health problems.